Reflections on Theory and Policy
One of the great mysteries in international politics today is why so few states have developed nuclear weapons. Cases such as North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran only underscore the point: if a country has the political will, not even poverty or underdevelopment can keep it from building a nuclear weapons program. While we can understand why a state such as Costa Rica or Tahiti does not seek an atomic bomb, it is less clear why states with both the motive and the means would fail to do so. For example, why did the forty states listed in chapter 1 (table 3)—all of which have nuclear-armed neighbors and nuclear facilities—choose to forgo nuclear weapons? It seems that not all states are motivated by the traditional, realist definition of threat. Perhaps, as neoliberal institutionalism posits, the new costs and benefits imposed by the nuclear nonproliferation regime have given states enough incentives to overcome their nuclear ambition. If so, then we would expect states to remain members of the NPT long enough to take advantage of the material benefits, only to cheat or withdraw afterward. A system of rewards and punishments is not likely to take away states’ motivation for the nuclear option—that is, if state elites define security with the traditional self-help focus on material capabilities. Only when state decision-makers expand their view of security to go beyond material capabilities will they even be interested in regime incentives beyond a purely instrumental attitude (“How long before I can leave or cheat?”).
While these two theories contribute in important ways to understanding nuclear forbearance, the fact that a large majority of states has joined and adhered to the nuclear nonproliferation regime says that elite definitions of security are broader than both realists and neoliberals might predict. The fact that states have remained members of the NPT despite changes in national leadership and other domestic conditions indicates that something systemic is at least partially at work (as opposed to an idiosyncratic set of beliefs held by a specific set of decision-makers).